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History Education in a STEM World

March 25, 2013

If you have followed politics and education trends over the past few years you have probably noticed theshift in focus toward a few key subjects, for this blog posts’ sake, most notably the STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) initiative.There are many critics of STEM, both for and against, and all of their points are for a different blog post. What I want to talk about here is how we use STEM ideas for the newest You Are There Experience: 1913: A City Under Water. Whether you love it or hate it, STEM has serious influence in the education world today which only seems to grow with time.

First, some context: STEM supports many things, notably for our purposes, “a strong emphasis on learning environments on hands-on, experimental, inquiry-based and learner-centered student experiences and activities” and “integration of STEM-focused activities … directed at learning environments outside the K-12 classroom.” To me, the prior quote is a fancy way of saying that we as educators should not be presenting to or at the children, but involving them as active participants in our experiences and activities. And the latter, well, that’s us. So, kinesthetic learning and establishing a culture where learning exists not solely in the classroom? Sign me up.

The 1913 experience puts visitors in Wulf’s Hall, the second floor of a saloon-turned-relief-station in Indianapolis in the wake of a massive flood event. Our task as educators was to develop an activity that related to STEM subjects, met the ideas mentioned above while staying true to the people, the time and the event.

1913 Relief Card

In this experience, students assemble relief bundles for flood sufferers who need supplies like bread, beans and rice. Upon entering the space, they receive relief cards with a family and the supplies requested. Students then work in teams to determine how much of each supply go into the bundles based on the number of adults and children in each household. This isan activity that occurred in the Wulf’s Hall in 1913, staying authentic to the space, while the students work with math, fractions, problem-solving and teamwork skills. Ideally this activity will drive conversation with interpreters while changing the space itself, as students deposit their assembled bundles in an area for delivery.Another activity is the supply depot, where students measure and count bags of supplies that will go on the assembly line.

While environmental science seemed like the natural (pun intended) focus, it would have been difficult to include that in the context of the 1913 recovery inside the space. However, flood science is discussed in a supplemental content room and will be featured in an upcoming flood science cart. With the science cart, students will consider the story of the 1913 flood, a pre-human settlement flood, and what a similar event would look like today, using maps and experimenting with water saturation of different building materials from each time period.

We feel that all of these activities stay true to the history of the story while also integrating STEM subjects and principles. What STEM-related activities would you like to see in You Are There 1913: A City Under Water?


Matt Durrett is coordinator, National History Day in Indiana. Usually laconic and reserved, he has recently acquired the nickname ÒThe Quiet StormÓ around the office for his rare yet tempest-like outbursts.

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